EDF blog on Leveson, human rights and the media – ‘let’s remember that people’s lives will be affected’

Emma Hutton is Human Rights Programme Director for the Equality and Diversity Forum, a network of national charities and NGOs working to make equality and human rights real for everyone.

Leveson: let’s remember that people’s lives will be affected

As the media, politicians, twitterati and the wider public digest the conclusions of Lord Leveson’s report into press ethics and regulation, it is worth pausing to remember that people’s lives will be affected by what happens next.

We should, for example, never forget the damaging impact the media can have on people’s right to privacy. The Leveson Inquiry revealed deeply concerning failures by parts of the media to respect this right.

In one particularly distressing example, Sally Dowler, mother of murdered teenager Milly Dowler, told the Inquiry about the impact of Milly’s phone being hacked and the press investigations into her family’s life at the time of Milly’s disappearance. She said, “The hacking and press intrusion that occurred at a time when we were so vulnerable has only served to heighten the impact of [Milly’s death]”. Describing being “sickened and shocked” by the hacking of Milly’s phone she also commented, “I would never have thought that private information would have been obtained and used by the press in the way that it has been. I would certainly never have thought that ordinary and vulnerable people like us would have been subject to phone hacking.”

We should also remember that hostile and prejudicial media coverage often fuels wider stigma and discrimination, with harmful consequences for those affected.

Several of our members – all national charities, representing the combined interests of tens of millions of people – told the Leveson Inquiry about the harmful consequences of discriminatory reporting on the people they represent:

Mind highlighted the stigmatizing and damaging impact on people with mental health problems of media coverage that makes repeated associations between mental illness, dangerous and violent crime, deploys negative rhetoric around welfare claimants and speculates about individuals’ mental health. They cited research showing that “60% of people [with mental health problems] said that stigma and discrimination are either as damaging and distressing as, or more damaging than, the symptoms of their mental illness.”

The End Violence Against Women Coalition described how inaccurate, intrusive and misrepresentative reporting “often amounts to victim blaming, dehumanises women and girls and exoticises violence against some women and girls”. They report that “when the media reports stories in a way which implicitly or explicitly blames women for attacks on them, [our members] receive a spike in calls from [victims of violence] who are ‘retraumatised’ by this continuing implication that what happened to them was in some way their fault”.

The National AIDS Trust described how prejudicial reporting about HIV was “harming public health as people are deterred from testing, confused as to how HIV is transmitted, and frightened of disclosing their HIV status to others”.

And the Refugee Council highlighted evidence showing how inaccurate, derogatory and unbalanced coverage of asylum seekers and refugees leads to misconceptions and hostile hostility in public attitudes towards these groups.

Freedom from discrimination is a fundamental principle underpinning all of the other human rights that protect us as we go about our daily lives.

In thinking about the best way to respect both this right and our rights to privacy, EDF members are also very mindful of the importance of respecting the right to freedom of expression that we all enjoy – including journalists and editors. That right is a vital ingredient of a healthy democracy. We would not wish to see any approach to media regulation that unduly fettered it.

We believe the Human Rights Act provides a good starting point for striking the right balance between all of these important rights. Although limited to public bodies, its careful approach to balancing the rights of individuals against the wider public interest is a framework that should underpin any system of media regulation.

We also believe that any form of regulation should include enforceable standards for responsible reporting, supported by practical guidance for journalists. To make these standards effective when it comes to protecting freedom from discrimination they should apply to groups of people affected by prejudicial reporting (rather than named individuals only), with the power for third parties representing these groups to bring complaints.

The intrusions and interferences with people’s human rights that led to the Leveson Inquiry shocked many people. Evidence to the Inquiry has shone a light on the damaging impact of some behaviour, by some parts of the media, on many people’s everyday lives. As we all consider how best to respond to Lord Leveson’s report, we must remember that people’s lives – their basic rights – will be affected by what happens next.

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